It was not the first time George Weah had packed out a football stadium, but perhaps it was the most significant.
Liberians queued for miles to see the inauguration of the former football star as their new president, celebrating their country’s first peaceful, democratic transition of power in 47 years by dancing as they waited.
Expectations are sky-high for Weah, who grew up kicking a ball about his poor suburb of Monrovia but became an international star and Liberian hero through a distinguished football career at Milan, Chelsea and Paris Saint-Germain, winning the Ballon d’Or and Fifa’s world player of the year.
“I have spent many years of my life in stadiums but today is a feeling like no other,” Weah, dressed in white and mopping his forehead with a handkerchief, told an ecstatic crowd at Samuel Doe football stadium in Monrovia. “I have taken an oath before you and before almighty God. Rest assured I will not let you down.”
It was a moment Weah had been anticipating for more than a decade: he first ran for president in 2005, but lost to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a former World Bank executive who became Africa’s first female head of state. In 2011, he ran as Winston Tubman’s vice-presidential candidate but they again lost out to Sirleaf.
“This victory would not have been possible without the youth of this country, the women of this country who made their living selling in the market,” said Weah. “This is your government.”
More than half of Liberians live in poverty and it was these people who filled the Weah rallies and turned out to vote for him, full of hope that his charmed life might somehow rub off on theirs.
“People believe George Weah has the magic wand,” said the Liberian political analyst Ibrahim al-Bakri Nyei.
He said Sirleaf had used her “remarkable leadership” to rebuild Liberia’s image and protect free speech and freedom of association, but that her weakness in fighting corruption had been the ruling Unity party’s downfall.
“People voted against the Unity party because of its failings on the economy and on fighting corruption,” he said. “The majority of George’s supporters are people living in squalor, in slum conditions. Communities are thinking that everything will be transformed, that they will have equal opportunity, better education, better healthcare. They see in George someone who is close to their life situations as he came from a slum community.”
In his first speech as president, Weah played to the gallery on corruption. “The way to directly affect the poor is to ensure our resources do not enter in the pockets of government officials. I promise to deliver on this mandate,” he said.